My 10-Year-Old's Back-Talk Is Driving Me Nuts

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Maskot/Getty

It’s started. The huffing. The puffing. The annoyed sighs. The “Ma-ma, I get it.” The “I don’t want to.” The “she/he hates me” (always about one parent, to the other parent). I thought that the mouthiness didn’t kick in until the teenage years. I was so wrong. My ten-year-old has entered the back-talk and disrespect phase — and it’s driving me bananas.

I used to have this wildly deluded idea (don’t laugh at me) that if we homeschooled — i.e., kept our children away from the negative influence of sassy kids — and restricted all those TV shows that glorify kids slinging clever comebacks at stupid adults (see: everything aimed at tweens), my kids wouldn’t be mouthy. They’d be respectful. They’d be sweet. I wouldn’t hear back-talk from my babies.

You can laugh at me now.

Once my oldest hit about 9-and-half years old, it started. He interrupts us to say what he did or didn’t do. He protests vociferously if asked to do simple tasks. He sulks. He mutters under his breath. He’s actually a delightful child, smart and fun and witty, but once at least once a day, he breaks out the back-talk.

It makes me nuts. When I was a kid, I’d always hear (usually shouted), “Don’t you speak that way to your mother/father!” “Disrespect” (i.e., back-talk) was never permitted or tolerated in our house, and I was definitely smacked/grounded/yelled at for it. I learned to STFU and keep my opinions to myself — and that my parents didn’t really give a damn for what I had to say. I also learned to be afraid of my father, the one who usually did the smacking/grounding/yelling.

But I grew up that way. So my immediate, kneejerk response to back-talk? “Don’t you talk to me that way!” or “Don’t you disrespect your father like that!”

It’s counterproductive though. I’m just repeating the same hateful cycle that made me feel small and powerless. It doesn’t teach my son anything except to keep his damn mouth shut, and I don’t want to raise a kid who keeps his damn mouth shut. I want to raise a kid who speaks up for himself and for others. But how the hell do I do that?

1. Stay Calm Amid the Back-Talk

It sets me off. I know it sets me off. I had to really step back and ask myself why: why did my child’s so-called disrespect make me so angry? I found that deep down, I thought children owed adults some kind of deference. Deference is different than politeness. Deference implies a difference in value or stature. My kid isn’t less valuable than me, and his opinions aren’t invalid because of his age. Talk about an ouch when I realized that deep-rooted belief.

So I had to learn to breathe. I had to learn to control myself. After all, how can I ask my kid to control myself when I can’t? If I’m yelling, he starts yelling (and some of you are shaking your heads at me: how could I let my kid yell at me? What a brat. But I’d rather he stand up for himself than back down, thanks). So I try to take a moment. I try to pause before I respond. I might even count to ten. Even those ten seconds help immensely.

2. Ask Yourself What’s Behind It

My son doesn’t back-talk for no reason. Usually he’s hangry, thirsty, or tired. Look, we all get hungry or thirsty or tired, and we’re not at our best then. If that’s what’s going on, I try to stay patient and meet whatever physical need is driving the so-called disrespect. It’s hard when your kid’s huffing, “You don’t have to be so mean about it!” But take that 10-second pause. I swear it works miracles.

Sometimes my son’s just feeling powerless. He can’t escape his little brothers. We’ve asked him to do things he doesn’t want to do. He feels small and bossed around. I don’t want a child to feel powerless. So I acknowledge the feeling: “You seem like you’re angry because (whatever provoked the backtalk). Can we talk about that?” This usually derails it. And if he snaps that he isn’t angry/sulky/mad/upset, I apologize mildly for ascribing that feeling to him, and explain, “Your tone/words/voice made it seem like you were. The way you spoke hurt my feelings and made me feel angry myself, because I don’t like it when people talk to me that way.”

3. Offer Them a Do-Over Instead of Back-Talk

Often a mild “let’s try to say that again” can work wonders. I might say something like, “It might seem like I never let you do anything. Can you try to say that in a kinder way so we can talk about it?” That opens a dialogue rather than shuts it down. When I was a kid, I felt like my parents didn’t care how I felt or what I had to say. When I give my son a do-over and ask to talk about it, I tell him that I care and value his opinion — while still making it clear that we don’t speak to people in that type of voice, or huff at people like that.

4. Watch Yourself

You know what’s totally embarrassing and unhelpful? When I realized I was huffing and snarking at my kids and my husband. Wonder where they picked that up, mama? Maybe from from you. I needed to check my own behavior, and oh God does that take effort and patience and time, time, time. I suck at it. But I’m learning. I try to count to ten. I try not to show I’m annoyed. I might say “I wish you had asked to pee five minutes ago when we were at the rest stop, not now,” but I try really, really hard not to huff it or snap it at them. They learned it from you, mom/dad/parental-ish figure. Check yourself.

I’m trying. I’m trying very, very hard. But dealing with this? It’s difficult. I’m confronting ugly beliefs and trying to fix my own behavior, and trying to stay patient when I want to go ballistic, and I’m not a patient person. But I want my son to feel valued. I want him to feel respected. I don’t want him to shut up. I want him to speak up — but I want him to do it in a kind, polite manner (at least to me). The back-talk needs to end, yeah — the nasty part of it. But I never want him to stop saying what he thinks, or believe that his feelings are invalid. I firmly believe that my son can learn to say, “I feel like you’re being unfair” instead of snarking, “You’re so mean.”

I just have to teach him how.

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